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Complicates The National In The Origins Of Capitalism, Needs To Confront The Individual
on March 13, 2006
Was capitalism a cultural project? Were the structural changes that created modern nations (rooted in capital) accompanied by significant and corollary changes in values, faith, religion, kinship, individualism, art, and other cultural phenomena? From the vantage point of twenty-first century cultural studies, the answer is an obvious "yes." It is not clear that Eric Wolf shares this vantage point in his field and in his period. For the most part, this work centers physical geographic connection, inclusion, and exclusion - - local and macrocosmic - - as the greatest influence on human behavior. For example: the peasant, newly excluded from the enclosed commons, turns to wage labor due to a lack of survival alternatives. Perhaps the peasant's motive for this change is not the most important question of history, but rather the change that history inscribes upon the peasant's cultural constitution. In other words, is the peasant merely a rational economic actor to be inserted in an equation of geopolitical determinism, or are they compelled at this broad historical juncture to do something newly irrational, counter-instinctual, and alien to the preparation of their human constitution? The problem is that Wolf's cool and rational engagement with the spaces, places, motions, and control of objects still subscribes to a fairly static reification of the individual. This individual must be unmoving in spiritual and cultural practice, trauma, affection, embrace and rejection, or at least conceived of as stable and reasonable outside of this variability, in order for Wolf's historical narrative to be a complete explanation. Of course, no author claims a complete explanation so the question becomes whether or not this is a viable one.
Without a doubt, Wolf's study of objects as moving and formative in the rise of prevailing world power was a radical departure from "situated" anthropology and the isolated empirical engagement of cultural objects. His work takes an important stand against ascribing the exceptionalism of modern nation states backwards through time as an acceptable constraint on historical inquiry. He thus separates himself from the study of "Dutch capitalism" or "Italian mercantilism" and instead presents a vision of connected communities and urban centers. In important ways, he upsets the claim that contemporary geopolitical and cultural divisions make on nature, a fallacy that prevailed across disciplines and credible discourses for centuries. Wolf rocks this boat. Surely, after reading this work, one is less comfortable with terms like "English feudalism."
However, this work does not trouble the claim that capitalism makes on nature because that claim is rooted in a very specific and historically modern reification of the liberal individual. Capitalism constructs the individual qua reason, a mind without a body and a rational actor whose flow is enabled, diverted, reversed, or stopped by resource and object politics. I remain unconvinced that history is quite so simple as changing the levers of human functionalism so articulated. While it is impressive (if not decentering) to document the history and rise of Europe as contingent on global object politics involving diverse peoples - - and the author openly admits that there is great and varied cultural context in each of the areas he connects - - somehow I also saw the "people without history" as the majority of human beings entangled in the wide net of capitalism's reductionism of the individual. I am not convinced that "the migrant's position is determined not so much by the migrant or his culture as by the structure of the situation in which he finds himself" (362). While this is true of physical location and perhaps even economic endeavor, this reduction of positionality is a modern phenomenon of capital. Is there a better interpretive?